The landscape of Southwest Virginia has always provided a wellspring for dreams, creativity and innovation. Soon, two new projects will showcase the region's artisans, and stimulate a "creative economy" through tourism.
When completed, each of the "gateway" facilities will include spaces for artisan demonstrations, music performances, a food service area, and more.
• Heartwood: Southwest Virginia's Artisan Gateway will also serve as a visitor's center with interactive maps highlighting enticing destinations for visitors and those considering relocation to our area.
Heartwood is slated to open in June 2011 on the campus of Virginia Highlands Community College in Abingdon, just off I-81 Exit 14. It will be visible to travelers southbound for Tennessee or northbound into Virginia. Construction of the exterior is expected to be completed in January, with interior displays to be installed by March. A "soft opening" is planned for mid to late May, with a grand opening in June.
The $17 million, 28,000-square-foot facility will be an iconic structure inspired by the spirit and character of Southwest Virginia. Spectrum Design of Roanoke chose a concept that reflects the historic gambrel barns so prominent in the area, then rotated the sections to create a unique, contemporary design.
Over the past five years, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), a federal agency which partners with 13 Appalachian states, has pumped more than $1 million into Washington County, Va., including funds for Heartwood, the Virginia Highlands Business Incubator and the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center. Last year ARC provided $200,000 for Heartwood's website work and $100,000 in 2007 to design and develop exhibits for the facility. In 2007, the project was awarded $6.1 million from the Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission. The Virginia General Assembly budgeted $3.3 million, and two $500,000 contributions came from the Town of Abingdon and Washington County, Va.
• Plans for Tanasi Arts & Heritage Center are picking up steam. The 38,000-square-foot building, resembling a contemporary mountain lodge, will be nestled in the foothills of the Cherokee National Forest on the west side of I-26 Exit 32, near Unicoi, Tenn. - a natural gateway for travelers eastbound into Tennessee or westbound into North Carolina.
Architectural and engineering plans have progressed to the design development stage, thanks to a $50,000 award in the form of a Green Building Design Initiative Grant from the Kresge Foundation headquartered near Detroit, Mich.
A new board of directors was recently elected, and a steering committee has been formed to work on grant proposals and to explore possibilities for operations, finance, marketing and communications.
A third order of business is major fundraising to begin construction and to create a Tanasi artist network. "To make the dream come true, we're looking at $10-$12 million, not including start-up costs," said Beth McPherson, vice chairman of Tanasi's newly elected board of directors.
Architect Steven Sykes of Reedy & Sykes Architecture and Design in Elizabethton, Tenn., previously transformed a historic structure in Clintwood, Va., into the state-of-the-art, interactive Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain Music Center. Regarding Tanasi, Sykes said, "We're in excellent shape. Whenever funds are available, we could start construction within months, depending on the weather."
The property for Tanasi was donated by Dr. Jack Snider, a Unicoi native, who specified that Tanasi be used in part for educational purposes. Fundraising began in earnest in 2008 with "A Taste of Tanasi," a kick-off event that featured local musicians, a dinner of locally harvested and prepared foods, and open and silent auctions sponsored by dozens of area artists and craftspeople. The next year, the Kresge planning grant was awarded through the Appalachian Resource Conservation and Development Council in Johnson City, Tenn.
McPherson said other grant applications are being developed and the Steering Committee is planning to approach large businesses and major private sources as well as obtain interest at state and federal levels, including the Tennessee Department of Transportation. The town of Unicoi recently applied for $5 million in special appropriations through the First Tennessee Development District.
-- Cultural Gateways: Creative Economy